An Interagency Persepctive on the Battle of Antietam
On Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history took place on the farm fields of Sharpsburg, Maryland and along banks of Antietam Creek. Of the 100,000 combatants, more than 23,000 Confederate and Union forces were killed, wounded or missing at the end of the 12-hour battle.
I was in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, no more than 3 miles from Antietam, attending an interagency course and was able to visit the site on the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Walking the ground of Antietam’s battle sites, on the very terrain and on the very day of so many American casualties was heartrending. It brought me back to a time when the formative history of America was still being written, when the united nation that we think of today -- and perhaps too often take for granted -- was not a certainty.
I couldn’t help but contrast the battlefield with my classroom setting of federal executives debating today’s contentious national policy issues. We were more than 30 civil servants hailing from a variety of agencies (Homeland Security, Defense, Social Security, Transportation,and others), a variety of states, and a variety of ethnic backgrounds all seeking ways to improve public policy-making for America. We certainly had our contentious disagreements (how to deal with pending sequestration, how to address the nation’s deficit, how to cut spending, etc.), but we settled those differences in a respectful manner unlike the disagreements of 1861-65 resolved on bloody battlefields.
Antietam was a Union response to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the north a year and a half into the Civil War. Lee marched his 40,000 Confederates across the Potomac River and was confronted at Antietam by Maj. Gen. George B.McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Both generals made mistakes that day which are good tutorials for today’s military leaders. But those mistakes are also first-rate reminders for those of us who work with other agency partners.
The interagency lessons I learned are:
Divided Forces. Lee had divided his 40,000 Confederates between Hagerstown, Md., Harper’s Ferry, Va., and Sharpsburg, Md. McClellan used this occasion to strike Lee’s divided forces. Interagency Lesson: We are a stronger federal government when we work together and not in a divided manner. When DOD works closely with other pertinent federal partners, we leverage all elements of national power.
Communication. McClellan’s battle plan broke down because of his uncoordinated advances. He failed to communicate clearly with his three corps commanders and failed to meet with them before and during the battle. As a result, he was unsuccessful in taking advantage of opportunities during the battle. Interagency Lesson: The importance of open, frequent communication with interagency partners cannot be overstated. It is essential to ensure that all partners, from a variety of agencies, are on the same page and are aware of the commander’s intent.
Trust. McClellan did not adequately trust perhaps his most able field commander, General Ambrose Burnside (who had also been considered by President Lincoln for command of the Army of the Potomac). This left Burnside without adequate reconnaissance forces and lacking a clear understanding of McClellan’s plan. Interagency Lesson: Trust is the “coin of the realm” in interagency matters. It is even more important than within one’s own department because different agencies have different cultures, languages and operating styles – trust reassures. EUCOM’s J9 seeks to reassure and reinforce trust by periodic visits to sending Departments (those who have representatives in our office like USAID, Treasury, etc.) and by weekly face to face meetings.
The Battle of Antietam (‘antietam’ is a Native American term for “swift flowing water”) was a military stalemate. Lee’s Army retreated across the Potomac one day after the battle. The human costs, however, were numbing and the battle remains a defining moment in our nation’s history: only five days after the battle Lincoln, used its occasion to make his Emancipation Proclamation. The battle’s lessons remain worthy of study. In my opinion, its principal lesson, like our European Command motto, is that we are today ‘Stronger Together!”.
J9-Interagency Partnering Directorate